Forget Superman and Batman, DC has finally figured out how to make good superhero movies — they just had to look a bit deeper on the bench. The latest DC flick from Warner Bros., Shazam!, is an absolute blast, and turns a whole lot of the old superhero movie tropes on their heads in the best way possible.
Much like Fox’s Deadpool served as a wacky variant on the Marvel movie formula, Shazam! pokes fun at a lot of the old cliches that stymied more than a few of its peers (including more than a few of the recent DC films from Warner Bros.). Instead of costumed heroes standing in the pouring rain and growling about making one another bleed, you get a guy in a bright red costume with a glowing lightning bolt on his chest doing the floss and shooting sparks to the Rocky theme. If it wasn’t clear to this point, yeah, this is not your usual DC movie.
Based on the decades-old comic hero, Shazam! is pretty much the textbook definition of wish fulfillment, with a teenage kid inheriting magical superpowers that put him in the same stratosphere as Superman. The kid, Billy Batson, is played here by Disney Channel alum Asher Angel; with the
Take a dash of Spider-Man, a PG-13 shot of Deadpool, a drop of Stranger Things, a few cups of Big (complete with a throwaway floor piano gag) and just a dollop of Harry Potter and you kinda get a feel for what director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) is aiming for here. In Levi, you have a guy who really can channel how a kid might think and act when given the keys to a super-powered body. The story dips into a few cliches of the genre — i.e. the training montage and figuring out how his powers work — but Levi and Grazer make it fun and funny enough you more than enjoy the ride. Want to figure out if you’re bullet-proof? Bust into the middle of a robbery and ask the thieves to shoot you in the face. Want to see if you can fly? Try (and fail) to jump over a skyscraper. Sure, you’ve probably seen those jokes a dozen times in the trailers already, but they still work.
Of course, this being a superhero flick — you have to talk about the action. So how is it? The fight scenes fall back on what fans of the genre are almost certainly already familiar with, from high-flying punch outs to slugfests with dark and dreary demon creatures. It’s still entertaining enough, but not really anything that’s going to push the medium forward. The film’s big bad, Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana, is drawn a bit thinly at times. But still, Strong’s charisma can carry you pretty far on its own.
Where Shazam! really shines, though, is in the story of Billy Batson himself. He’s a foster kid who only wants to find his family, and spends most of his adolescence trying and failing to track down his missing mother. He’s just a kid grappling with emotions he’s not quite equipped for yet, and Shazam! wisely takes its time giving that arc room to breathe. At its heart, this is a story about family — a theme that makes for some surprising twists as the story goes on that we won’t spoil here. Sure, it’s not exactly new territory to tell a story about the family you find, but in the framework of a superhero story it’s not really something we’ve seen before.
Shazam! knows what makes it unique, and it leans hard into those narrative choices. This is a story fully told from a kid’s perspective, which isn’t something you get from most super-stories. They try to buy beer, and get a peek in a strip club. Y’know, stuff teenage boys would probably, actually do in this circumstance. There’s also the stakes, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof. Yes, Dr. Sivana is a threat to the world, but we really only see him causing chaos across Philly. This isn’t a story that really needed any universe-ending stakes, and keeping the story smaller really is a benefit.
It’s somewhat ironic that Warner Bros. is having its best creative luck with DC properties well outside the beaten path of A-listers like Superman or Batman that have dominated the box office for decades. It took Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam! for DC to finally start firing some creative shots back across the bow at Marvel Studios. If Shazam! is a harder glimpse at what DC has planned, I’d be happy to see this lightning strike twice.
Shazam! opens in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada on April 5th and in Australia on April 4th.
Directed by: David F. Sanberg
Written by: Henry Gayden
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
Distributed by: Warner Bros. / DC Films
Run time: 132 minutes
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fight Club, and the Quest For Authenticity
An exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self
As with any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, his ninth is a fountain of hot-takes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something for everybody with an opinion about just about anything. The film has touched off conversations about #MeToo, nostalgia, Christianity, and foot fetishism. In short, I fully understand that the last thing anybody needs is yet another angle on this movie.
Nonetheless, I would like to propose that Tarantino’s latest is not only the sweetest, most optimistic film of his career, it’s also a rather profound exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self. By looking at this film’s use of doubling, and by contrasting it with how doubling functions in David Fincher’s Fight Club, I want to argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers unexpected wisdom about the possibility of finding authenticity in a world of artifice, even as it creates an artificial past.
The film is utterly unique in Tarantino’s catalog, lacking (until the ending) the gruesome violence that characterizes so many of his films. The specter of that violence still hangs over this film and adds a lot of juicy tension to scenes like Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch. One has come to expect carnage in scenes like this in the past, and Tarantino masterfully uses that expectation to create a scene that is a masterclass in suspense.
Once Upon a Time‘s directorial craftsmanship is joined by absolutely stellar performances across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance as Rick Dalton is a complex web of rage, vulnerability, and desperation and should earn the actor an Oscar nomination if there is any justice. Likewise, Margot Robbie is simply dazzling as Sharon Tate and, like the film itself, she makes the viewer long for a world in which Tate survived Charles Manson’s impotent rage.
It is Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, that I want to focus this analysis on, however. Pitt’s performance pairs nicely with DiCaprio’s and his characterization of Cliff is a kind of negative to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. For all Dalton’s frantic, nervous desperation, Pitt’s Cliff is a rock of bemused stoicism, and the two performances feed seamlessly off one another. So seamlessly that they function as two parts of a single whole, which is of primary concern to the film, I argue.
The doubling of Cliff and Rick offers substantial food for thought about the nature of identity in this film, and I want to suggest that Once Upon a Time says something important about personal redemption. Some viewers have dismissed Tarantino’s latest as mere wish-fulfillment, but others, such as David Bentley Hart, see a sincere moral imagination in the film’s re-imagination of the Manson tragedy, and its attempt at crafting an alternative narrative that redeems the broken past through art. Hart’s reading of the film seems right to me and I think that central to the film’s power is Rick Dalton’s process of reconciliation with himself. He struggles with being two people at once, the biological Rick Dalton, and the Hollywood creation “Rick Dalton.”
DiCaprio’s Dalton is an amalgam of an old-Hollywood system actor. He is part Clint Eastwood, part James Arness, and part John Wayne. He is meant to be taken as an archetype of an actor who is a product of a star-driven system. Whatever role Dalton was playing, he was, for his audience, “Rick Dalton,” and his strength was in delivering on the expectations that system created. The problem with that for Dalton is that he became a fictional version of himself in the process. His individual identity, as an artist and as a man, was lost, replaced with the product “Rick Dalton” that was crafted and sold by the entertainment industry. And as Hollywood began transitioning away from the system in which this was successful, Dalton experienced a profound identity crisis.
The forging of that artificial identity required the pairing of Rick with Cliff, his confidant, and stunt double. “Rick Dalton” could not very well be an action hero if he could not fall off a horse. However, to do so would eventually bear a heavy toll upon Rick Dalton. Cliff, the rugged stunt man, could bear the physical burdens that made the on-screen persona possible.
The resulting partnership was a two-sided coin for Dalton. Sure it made the creation of “Rick Dalton” possible, but it stunted the human development of Rick Dalton, and in the midst of epochal changes in the industry threatened his very existence. Cliff made Rick look powerful on-screen, but off-screen, Dalton’s life became similarly dependent upon Cliff, who could not fix his own TV antenna or even drive his own car. To create the heroic, powerful “Rick Dalton,” Rick Dalton became nothing but a spider-web of powerlessness and anxiety.
“Rick Dalton’s” power resided fully in Cliff’s preternaturally capable hands. He may or may not have killed his wife, but he is a master stuntman nonetheless, an expert driver, a skilled handyman, and he even beat Bruce Lee in a fight. This is all before his near single-handed massacre of the Manson family at the film’s climax. In short, the power he brings to the creation of “Rick Dalton” is dangerous, with a mystical violence lying just below the grinning, calm surface he presents. He is the id to Dalton’s superego and together, they form a precarious ego.
Here a comparison to Fight Club is in order.
David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel also dealt with a character split into two halves. The crafted persona of “The Narrator” (Edward Norton) comes to depend on the unbridled violence of his other half, Tyler Durden (performed by, coincidently or not, our own Brad Pitt). Durden is the id to The Narrator’s out-of-control superego, and he frees the depressed white-collar worker from the constraints put on him by consumer society, supposedly connecting him back to his state as a “natural man.”
Like Rick Dalton, The Narrator lives a life curated for success in the machinery of his industry. The demands of this effort eventually replaces any authenticity his life might contain with a manicured performance. His is a kind of simulacrum rather than a man.
Here is precisely where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood diverges from Fight Club, however, and the change helps make Tarantino’s film far more optimistic than Fincher’s.
For Fight Club’s Narrator, Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a hammer used to destroy the carefully curated image. Trapped in a consumer nightmare existence, Norton’s character invents a psychic projection of himself that frees him from the shackles of his inauthentic lifestyle. What many viewers of the film miss, however, is that, despite the apparent ethical move toward authenticity, what this actually results in is a kind of fascist movement (today we might call the Fight Club an Alt-Right group) based on a mythology of the past. In short, The Narrator and Durden replace one form of inauthenticity with another.
Once Upon a Time inverts the relationship between Pitt and his double. Here, the free and violent Cliff is not the solution to Rick’s problem of inauthenticity, he helps facilitate it in the first place. (One other major difference is, of course, that here Pitt’s character literally exists and is not a psychic manifestation of The Narrator’s subconscious). When, at the film’s end, Rick and Cliff amicably part, both are given the new opportunity to exist without dependency upon the other in this optimistic fantasy world in which Old Hollywood and New Hollywood come together without the violent fracture of the Manson murders.
The difference is significant. Because Cliff is not leading Rick from one artificial life to another, Rick is free from his codependency upon his stunt man and free to create a whole version of himself.
And as it turns out, Rick is a good actor. In the film’s third act, while separated from Cliff, he blossoms in his craft. Hired by a director who breaks with practices of the system that created “Rick Dalton,” Rick is forced to act, not merely perform “Rick Dalton.” DiCaprio’s performance in these scenes are the moral centerpiece of the film and we see a transformation in Dalton. Freed of the constructed identity that created “Rick Dalton,” including his id, Cliff, he sheds the confines of the old system and metamorphoses into an actor that may one day star in Roman Polanski films of an imagined New Hollywood.
Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw
If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion
It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.
When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.
Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.
Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.
The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.
In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.
HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes